Nudging the Limits Part 2

Recent discovery of oil off Cambodia’s coast provides a stark and stunning example of the impact of peak oil on the ability of the world to sustain its thirst for the crude stuff.

The reserve is said to be 500 million barrels. However the field is broken up into many small reservoirs and difficult to extract so that as little as 10% may be recoverable. The five hundred million figure is part of the 30 year supply the world is said to have by those supposedly in the know; the US Department of Energy, the big oil companies and a few other big time deniers. It’s there all right, and for the most part will remain so for eternity.

Chevron, which did the exploration, probably won’t want to bother with such a low quality field and leave the extraction to small independents. 

It’s the steep downside of the peak oil bell curve and once it comes on will have breathtaking consequences for daily life. Above all, because of its impact on food production and distribution. This will be true of industrial farmers in the developed world as well as subsistence farmers in the remainder.

For at least half a century industrial farmers have dosed their lands with high impact fertilizers leaving the land bereft of organic material or natural fertility. At this point growing there is the equivalent of hydroponics gardening; the soil contains little nutrient value of its own. Pesticides and herbicides are applied liberally and frequently leaving the soil lifeless: there are no worms or other creatures keeping the soil light and airy and providing natural fertilizer.

Along with industrial fertilizer prices going through the roof, so to the plant and bug killers which, in the great majority of cases, are derived from petrochemicals. Then, to compound the land’s misery, giant heavy machinery is used in every phase of the growing cycle which compacts the soil making it difficult for roots to expand and thrive; once again, not as serious a problem when you’re farming with chemicals since in that case the plants are not getting their nutrients from the soil.

Once the food has been produced, it often gets shipped around the world, not to mention, across the US. Of late, developing countries have been encouraged, when not coerced - by international financial organizations and trade regimes dominated by the developed world - into growing cash crops for the rich world. This has had the effect of replacing indigenous staple food production with subsidized rich world grains. It’s been a disaster for many developing world farmers as they can’t compete with subsidized grain: millions of subsistence farmers have been driven off the land and into crowded cities. It also impacts individual countries as they can not feed themselves, leaving their food supply to the vagaries of the world market.

However, the worst is yet to come because cash crops shipped over long distances will become increasingly untenable as a viable business model. Those countries will have to scramble to reorient their agriculture for local consumption. Everywhere agriculture will have to reorient itself to a local, community focus.

Food sovereignty is an extension of local agriculture to the national level. The highest priority for any country is a secure food supply for its people; no international rules or trade pacts should be allowed to supercede or interfere with that fundamental right. Neither should countries be forced to accept food they consider unsafe. It is ludicrous to think that trade bodies consisting entirely of industry representatives should have the right to dictate food safety policy, as in the WTO telling Europe it must accept genetically modified foods.

Agriculture will also increasingly become organic; in the long run there is really no alternative. The world got along reasonably well for quite a few millennia before the advent of industrial agriculture, and could easily, over a suitable transition period, revert. Not to say that it won’t be difficult chore to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

Still, there is lots of arable land in the world that is not being cultivated. When you consider that China, with 22% of world population but only 7% of its arable land, was able to provide for itself until recently, you understand there is some leeway yet for adequate food production. One practice the Chinese have used for food production that is not really available for duplication elsewhere, except under extreme duress, is cultivation of steep hillsides. It is a tediously difficult way to produce food but their limited resources have left them with no choice in the matter: every square meter of quality land is already utilized to the fullest.

One method which the Chinese use which can be replicated is the collection and application of human waste. Nearly all that is available in the countryside is used as fertilizer. It is highly prized: Chinese farmers often erect roadside outhouses in the hope that passersby will stop and dump a load. They apply it fresh, though it would be better and safer if it was composted first. Chinese never eat fresh veggies, for good reason.

The crux is that every possible source of organic material will have to be used to the utmost if organic agriculture is to replace industrial agriculture, and even then, in a macro sense, it might not yield as much per acre. Organic fields can easily produce as much as commercial fields, but probably not if every farmer were competing for organic fertilizer. When farmers discovered that one kilo of easily applied petrochemical based fertilizer was equivalent to 40 kilos of manure they no longer had any interest in the latter. For that reason, there is today lots of manure available to organic farmers.

As industrial fertilizer becomes increasing expensive, not to mention unavailable, there will be a mad dash for the natural stuff. In a wise and sustainable world all human, animal and vegetable waste, to the greatest extent practicable, would be anaerobically (in the absence of air) composted in order to capture the methane gas within. Methane can be produced on a very small scale - in back yards in 55 gallon steel drums - and works just fine for cooking.

After the gas is extracted and the material is dried it is applied to the land as a soil amendment or additive. It has nowhere near the intensity of commercial fertilizer but it substantially improves soil quality and tilth.

It is much easier to aerobically compost organic waste, but either way, aerobically or anaerobically, extremely little composting is happening today.

Human waste in America is processed in sewage treatment plants and is available for use, but in the big cities tends to be tainted with heavy metals so can not be used on food crops. Meanwhile, there are two billion people in the developing world who don’t have proper toilets and just shit around. Either way, a waste of what will come to be an essential resource.

Food scraps are typically landfilled. Occasionally, landfills will have facilities for extracting methane gas, but, of course, the organic matter ends up in the landfill not on the land.

Yard waste that isn’t landfilled is burned. The burning process not only creates pollution including greenhouse gases but most of its fertilizer potential is lost. Wood ash has nutrient value but far less overall than composting the yard material and returning it to the soil.

Finally, there is the transition to small scale agriculture. As the example of the difference in weight between commercial and organic fertilizer of the same nutrient value succinctly illustrates, organic agriculture will require many more hands; five or ten times the labor per acre planted.

One thousand acre farms will scale down to 40 or less acres, and they’ll be located close to population centers. Strawberries will be available at a reasonable price for six weeks or so in early summer: air lifted from Chile in January reserved strictly for the elite.

Back yard gardens will be essential to the well-being of very large numbers of people. Half hour a day of getting your hands dirty on a 10 or 20 square meter garden - utilizing compost from your own waste, wood ash from fireplaces or wood stoves, a little sand from the beach, maybe half dozen hens providing their manure - and you’ve got food at your fingertips. Clean, healthy, ultimately fresh; nothing can match it.

The great many fruit trees scattered around many American cities will become cherished assets rather than the nuisances they are now. Today fruit rots on the tree or the ground while the tree’s owners get their fruit, often shipped cross-country, at the local supermarket. Not too far in the future they will cease to be too lazy or too busy to bother with taking care of and harvesting their bounty.

Most importantly, the transition, though inevitable, will not be an easy one.